Flavours From The Forests of Panchachuli

With traditional recipes on the verge of being lost, food festivals like 'The Himalayan Bounty' attempt to revive the age-old delicacies by infusing them with modern flavours
'The Himalayan Bounty' festival
A glimpse of 'The Himalayan Bounty' festivalMayank Kumawat

Clanking of vessels, wok-tossed pindalu (purple yam) and a tangy-sweet thuruchook (sea buckthorns) condiment dominated the recently concluded Himalayan Bounty in Munsiyari, located amidst the snow-clad ranges of Pithoragarh. This bountiful sight at the food festival honoured indigenous cuisines and ancient cooking methods. It is a way to thank nature for its abundant offerings. Foraging ingredients from forests and farms of Sarmoli, the festival was a collaboration "with the rural community and for the rural community."

As someone who hails from Uttarakhand, I was delighted to see "Pahadi" delicacies cooked with a contemporary twist. More so, the inquisitive village women captured my attention with their fine skills and camaraderie. Their conversance of the local ingredients, attention to detail and handpicking the traditional brass and copper utensils reflected their loyalty to their roots.

Festival organiser Ashish Verma
Organiser Ashish Verma carrying traditional vessels as part of the preparations for the food festivalMayank Kumawat

"They don't mind experimenting with flavours; however, their culture is paramount to them, and they will not hesitate to draw the boundaries," festival organiser Ashish Verma told me. It was evident when these women expressed displeasure over cooking meat in the traditional containers. They are believed to prefer cooking only vegetarian dishes in these vessels due to socio-religious factors such as preparing feasts during festivals.

A Slow-Cooked Approach

Our fast-paced lifestyles seek a quick hack for everything, which means that cooking with patience has also taken a backseat. We always keep alternatives handy. Even with cooking, we want something that can be instantly prepared, often compromising food quality. However, Sarmoli taught me a slow-paced approach to the craft. Most dishes were slow-cooked in large cauldrons to keep them nutritious and flavourful.

One such delicacy was the buckwheat khichdi, prepared by Goan Chef Avinash Martins. The khichdi was concocted with many local vegetables, making it delicious and a healthy, high-carb meal. "There is no shortage of ingredients in Indian villages. From locally grown maalta (a variety of orange) to the widely available trout fish, we have handpicked our ingredients from the regular households here. The purpose is to cook and dine with the local community while reviving the region's heritage dishes," Martins told me.

A glimpse of the festival
Meals were cooked in brass/copper containers at the festivalMayank Kumawat

The Goan chef believes in sustainable cooking and was highly impressed with the simple organic ingredients. "Even a basic bread like chapati has an umami flavour. The wheat is organic and freshly brought from the farm. The fact that people here grow their wheat makes all the difference, making the food tasty and healthy, unlike cities where we get processed flour."

Madua flour (Ragi) is a widely grown cereal in Kumaon. With health benefits such as calcium and iron-rich properties, it is the most consumed flour in households here. It was reimagined into fluffy loaves of bread by Chatola-based chef Keith Goyden. "I also made an almond cake using the widely available mulberry here. The regional ingredients such as these tangy berries have exposed us to a more topical and diverse menu."

The Cuisine

A hot topic that intrigues visitors about Uttarakhand's cuisine is its limited menu. With nutritious ingredients and room for experimentation, people here are welcoming and willing to contribute their bit to preserve the culinary heritage of their state. However, with the easy availability of ready-to-eat food, there has been a shift towards what entices the tongue rather than what's healthy.

"Pahadon Waali Maggie" is a huge hit in the mountains and Sarmoli, where traditional offerings like kukla (wheat-based noodles) are losing their relevance amidst the growing demand for two-minute noodles or momos. It was evident in the many shops at the village's central market populated with Delhi-like cafes. Few of them had everything, from a North Indian Chaat to a pizza and pasta.

A glimpse of the festival
Buckwheat khichdiMayank Kumawat

Ladakh's Chef Nilza Wangmo agrees that the reliance on processed food only increases with each passing day; however, food festivals like these serve as a beacon of hope. "Not only are they promoting the use of organic ingredients, but they are familiarising the young generation with their rich heritage," she said.

However, she also felt that the cuisine of Uttarakhand needs to expand further. "The regional chefs should take it upon themselves to organise pop-ups or come up with innovative ideas to merge the local ingredients with modern flavours. "I tried reviving several foods in Ladakh when I sensed a decline in the availability of conventional dishes." She further suggested that people can develop an enhanced version of the same cuisine with more ingredients. "Bringing in new recipes is important."

A glimpse of the festival
From L-R: Chef Avinash Martins, Chef Keith Goyden and Chef Nilza Wangmo Mayank Kumawat

On the other hand, Chef Goyden believes that geographical factors play a significant role in defining the capacity of a cuisine.  "As an outsider, I can say that this is a fairly limited range of things, but we must not forget that various factors decide the outreach and availability of food."

Even with their limited options, the locals justify the scope of experimentation with fantastic food pairings such as a bhaang chutney (cannabis seed chutney) with madua roti (ragi) and bhujji (local greens). These food combinations are sufficient to represent a diverse Uttarakhandi platter, which stands out in its unique ways despite the challenges.

Shaut Shamal

The chefs laid the table with a fusion of pan-India delicacies that represented the essence of the festival. Collecting ingredients from the forests and giving them a captivating twist was the highlight of this multi-delicacy platter that saw an assortment of food options like Himalayan cow milk cheeseboards, wild harvests such as mushroom ragout, a wok-tossed pindalu or buckwheat pancakes.

Chef Wangmo, who cooked a thick creamy stew of Himalayan beans, underlined the dire need to keep traditional foods from disappearing. She pointed out how modern-day machines overtake sustainable cooking techniques. "Making a paste on these rock grinders, which act as food enhancers, is like acquainting yourself with age-old kitchen techniques. This practice is vanishing in Ladakh, where mixers dominate the food landscape.  I hope to return this practice to my kitchen and region, too."

A glimpse of the festival
'Silbatta' (rock grinder)Mayank Kumawat

With recipes from the Panchachuli, the five peaks where the Pandavas are believed to have prepared their last meal before ascending to heaven, these community-led food festivals serve the very purpose of restoring food heritage and age-old recipes that are inspired by the concept of "Shaut Shamal,"—food that was "prepared and packed" for people who set off on long journeys for trade with Tibet. The practice is being revived to preserve an ancient legacy that is gradually retiring into oblivion.

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